The paid posts - often related to awareness campaigns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Brexit - were added to the social network giant's online register of political ads, alongside posts from far-right partisan groups, mainstream political parties and other political campaigners.
The abuse raises questions about Facebook's ability to monitor its own transparency tools, designed to counter allegations that it enabled the spread of misinformation.
After POLITICO reached out to Facebook for comment on why these public service posts were being treated in the same way as digital posts from political parties, the company acknowledged that it had misidentified these ads and said it was in the process of removing them from the online database of political advertisements.
"Ads about COVID-19 are generally allowed to run without a disclaimer," Robin Koch, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement. "Ads on other social issues may also be exempt if they do not contain political or electoral content, so some of these may have been incorrectly flagged."
The error was widespread with paid public service messages, worth tens of thousands of euros and viewed thousands of times, from EU institutions and other public bodies such as the UK government.
According to an analysis of Digital Bridge , POLITICO's transatlantic tech newsletter, between January 12 and February 10, the European Commission, the European Parliament and European governments, particularly the UK, were among the top buyers of ads on Facebook.
For example, the UK government recently bought dozens of Brexit-related and COVID-19 ads on Facebook to raise awareness of the need to protect themselves and prepare for changes in how goods can be transported to and from the country. sent. The European Commission flooded Hungary with a digital anti-Roma discrimination campaign. The Council of the European Union placed advertisements to celebrate Lithuania's national holiday (en published then in Latvia and Poland).
During the most recent one-month period, the combined political ad spend for the 27-country bloc and the UK was € 6,2 million, according to Facebook's transparency tools. The UK was the largest market, with a total of € 2,2 million spent on political advertising. Of the EU countries, Germany, Italy and Sweden respectively were the three largest expenditures.
While Facebook must now adjust these general numbers to remove mislabeled ad purchases from EU institutions and governments, the total amount spent on political ads across Europe is not expected to change significantly, according to the analysis from POLITICO.
The United States - where almost all purchases of political ads on Facebook have been suspended since the country's election in early November - also amassed € 1,9 million in nationwide political ad purchases over the same period, including from a series of links and right-wing partisans. groups that, according to POLITICO's analysis, were able to circumvent the tech giant's ongoing ban.
Amid growing unrest over Facebook's role in democratic elections, policymakers have demanded more scrutiny of digital political ads and often harshly criticized the social network giant's role in society.
In the most recent one-month period, many of the paid posts on Facebook have been associated with elections, such as the upcoming vote in the Netherlands on March 17 and regional elections in Catalonia on February 14.
Still others, including European Parliament ads promoting sustainable farming practices and Commission-paid COVID-19 awareness-raising posts, were also mislabeled.
Governments in Europe and the US have repeatedly called on Facebook to address bad behavior, and researchers have gaps discovered in the way the technology giant oversees such political ads on its platform. Last year outlined Brussels too introduce to limit how political groups can target potential voters online with tailored advertising.
To quell such criticisms, Facebook initiated a transparency system in 2018 that required entities such as political parties or governments that bought biased ads or paid posts on popular topics such as climate change to disclose themselves to online users. So far, according to Facebook's transparency tools, groups around the world have spent about $ 3 billion on these political ads, mostly in the US.
Despite the criticism of Facebook, the UK government - one of the country's biggest ad buyers during the most recent month-long period - released multiple paid social media posts about the country's economic recovery plans and COVID-19 health warnings. Some of those ads were also shown in Denmark and Portugal to target UK expats and those looking to trade with the UK
EU institutions have also turned to the social network giant as they try to curb the excesses of the social media company.
In the same month-long period, the Commission became one of the largest buyers of Facebook ads in Hungary with a 10-day digital campaign to raise awareness about discrimination against the ethnic Roma minority. The same paid message was heard in Romania and Slovakia, where racist attitudes towards the minority group are also common.
A Commission spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the Facebook campaign.